Maara Haas’s lines
dance across the page to form the epigraph to Di Brandt’s The Sweetest Dance on Earth. A pas de deux, her words partner with Brandt’s poems in a choreograph of Winnipeg’s artistic communities, a city known for its Royal Ballet.
Instructively, Brandt’s “Foreword” takes off from Northrop Frye’s distinction between Mozart and Beethoven, the former repeating the same song with minor variations, the latter evolving along the way. Brandt admits to both tendencies, and as adept as she is in short poetic lines, so can she stretch a sentence through plenitude and inclusiveness: “By that standard, I guess I’m a Beethoven, there have been so many imaginative leaps to make in my life, which began in a traditionalist Plautdietsch speaking German hymn singing Mennonite farming village in southern Manitoba and ended up in contemporary Indigenous inflected, multicultural Winnipeg, Canada, and beyond that into the globalized post-industrial landscapes of Ontario and other parts of Canada, and to many other richly diverse cultural scenes and communities around the world.”
In one autobiographical sentence she pirouettes from classical music to Mennonite hymns, rhyming speaking, singing, and farming, before branching out to Indigenous and multicultural Winnipeg, and eventually the entire globe. With one foot planted in Winnipeg and the other spinning around the world, she steps gingerly from Beethoven to Mozart: “I never really left the rich, flowery, musical, romantic, barefoot, fantastical, intergenerational, spiritually inflected cosmology of that traditional Mennonite upbringing in my evolving poetic expressions, the Plautdietsch, nature-loving, peasant part of the heritage.” Strutting adjectives and multiple inflections, those turning ins of dance and desire – from Indigenous to Mennonite to humble cosmopolitanism – inform her writing. Across the prairies she hears the faint sound of drumming and bison herds thundering, as she braids together old and new rhythms.
“The sweetest dance” is the final poem in the volume, and its couplets capture the dancing bond and rapture between adult and child. “I see you walking, dear one, / skipping confidently along the sand.” The initial caesura measures the child’s stride, which then stretches in the second line’s skipping, its sibilance picking up the earlier “see” and leading to “sand,” while the firmer “k” sounds in walking and confidently secure the child’s feet. The second stanza continues this rhythm with variations on iambic trimeter: “your hand outstretched toward / the blue butterfly, twirling.” Twirling continues the walking and skipping, while the enjambment to the next couplet advances and echoes the “b” alliterations: “in the blue, blue air just ahead of you — / like a tiny windblown kite.” The repetition of blue and the longer tetrameter lead to the end dash and simile where outstretched hand and butterfly resemble a kite at the end of the sentence.
The next stanza begins with another rhythmic repetition and ongoing present participles in a dance of trimeters: “There, there, just above your fingers / twirling, swirling, whirling.” These echo the air of colour and breathing. After these arresting caesuras, the next stanza opens up to pauseless tetrameters: “teasing you along the path / of the great adventure of your life.” The poem is delicately balanced by the “I see” that begins the first five stanzas and the second five, as the poet’s vision inserts itself in innocent wonder in the dance between trimeters and tetrameters, monosyllables and participles, stanzas and sentences.
The speaker continues: “I see your eyes sparkly, / like little stars, I hear your laugh.” This simile picks up see, sparkly, sprinkling, and sprightly, whose assonance with “delighted” and “excited” voice the laughter. The last three stanzas move towards the superlative from dear one to dearest one, and sweet to sweetest:
“Keep reaching for that twirling
blue butterfly, dearest one, keep laughing
Your sweet laugh, keep dancing
along the sand and grass
on your perfect twinkling feet,
the sweetest dance on earth.”
Brandt’s lyrical balance between childlike simplicity and subtlety turns poetry into earth’s sweet dance, while her eco-poetics in other poems transforms earth into poetic meter and matter.
Her penultimate poem, “Birdsong at Riding Mountain,” is pure sound, avian onomatopoeia, imitative harmony and cacophony where “sweet” recurs and exclamation marks punctuate the air that dances in sympathetic vibrations. The ending of the poem, “Wheep? Wheep? Wheep?” is a reminder of earlier poems in her career with their bittersweet weeping. Tears of joy and sorrow in her bittersweet tango are also reminders of her status as Winnipeg’s first Poet Laureate, for the laurel carries early associations with lachrymose. Other bird poems echo Wallace Stevens’s blackbirds, peacocks, and parakeets, themselves echoes of Keats’s nightingale and Romantic skylarks. The Poet Laureate speaks to two audiences – her local contemporaries and her European precursors. Whether adhering to formal ghazals or experimenting with “Winnipeg Winter Sonnets,” she manages to revise a chorus of poets. Consider her appropriation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet #116 in which she transforms the conventional 14-line sequence into 17 lines. Brandt’s wit grips the Bard’s winter: “Let me not to the extreme beauty of Winnipeg / Winters admit the weeniest of arguments! / Winter is not winter where it melting finds / Or softens its grip to please whiny wusses!” Exclamation marks, alliterated W’s, and negatives grasp the frozen season and city into its eternity. As the Avon flows and freezes into the Assiniboine, the poet blends vernacular verse (weeniest, whiny wusses) with Shakespearean drama, the confluence of “staggering stalagmites” and lyrical “Scatters diamonds.”
Brandt’s rhapsody in blue continues in #18 with its apostrophe “O Winnipeg Winter!” and personification, “You sashay” and “You rule, yo.” The city’s freezing dance is a sashay, a chase or following after Shakespeare, while the ending “yo” subverts hierarchies of monarchy. And in Sonnet #42 she sheds her earlier poetic modes: “Aestheticized, self-reflexive, futurist-postmodern phase” to settle in real-time flesh and blood and bone, for she has come home, not to domestic servitude, but to a feminist monarchy. For the “turning Wheel of Fire / is its crown and we are / all singing and dancing / cosmic stars flickering / in its gyre up and down.” She dances up and down archetypal ladders, barn rungs, and Indigenous hoops where earth and sky meet the Grandmothers throughout their generations.
The dance metaphor appears in her very first collection, questions i asked my mother: “these words dancing painfully across the sharp etched lines” in a poem that ends with “crazy cakewalk.” Early crying and weeping yield to the exuberance of dance in motherhood and grand-motherhood. Adele Wiseman, Miriam Waddington, Margaret Laurence, and Carol Shields form part of Winnipeg’s creative community. Other dancers of the happy shades include Dorothy Livesay, Louise Halfe (Cree Sky Dancer), Erin Moure, John Thompson, and Phyllis Webb. Brandt’s multi-phonic verse also encompasses the Ojibway Miigwech and Cree Kisâkihitin – the great mix up, streaked with light. She is a conduit between grandmothers and their offspring, Stevens’s bird “with coppery, keen claws” that conduct and clutch.
Penny Silverthorne’s cover image, Hyacinths and Crocus, enhances the dance through its watercolours, while a delicate floral pattern accompanies the cursive design of the book. These small flowers also resemble bees and bows that tie together many elements of the text where bittersweetness and light trans-pollinate the poems. Six pages of accolades precede the poems. Add this to the list.
About the Author
Di Brandt is one of Canada’s most loved and admired poets. Di Brandt has lived in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor (Ontario) and Berlin. She currently teaches at the University of Winnipeg.
- Publisher : Turnstone Press (Sept. 30 2022)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 180 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0888017359
- ISBN-13 : 978-0888017352
Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.